Chapter 12:  The President And The Bomb, 1956-1960


Throughout the battles over mutual security and the military budget, Eisenhower stuck firmly to one premise that he had settled on in his first year in office:  Nuclear weapons would be at the center of national security policy.  Nuclear weapons would also be the primary instrument and symbol of apocalypse management and the primary source of insoluble irony and insecurity.  He left office as he had started, clinging to the New Look and its distinctive way of speaking about nuclear weapons.[1] 

This is a point worth establishing in some detail, since there is a widespread impression that, from 1956 to 1960, Eisenhower increasingly grasped the magnitude of the weapons’ growing destructive power and changed his own views accordingly.  Early in 1956, the president did tell the NSC:  “The United States is piling up armaments which it well knows will never provide for its ultimate safety.”  As estimates of damage from a global war rose dramatically, he often repeated the point:  “The fallout from our own weapons could destroy our own country, and indeed the entire Northern Hemisphere.”  “He did not see how the nation could survive as an organized society.”  “We would really be destroying civilization.”[2] 

Yet the same man who made these statements presided over and approved a spectacular growth in the nuclear arsenal.  When he entered office in 1953 there were no deliverable H-bombs, no ballistic missiles, no submarine-based nuclear weapons, no array of tactical nuclear weapons.  When he left office, these and other innovations were facts of life.  The nuclear buildup accelerated most during his last five years in office.  According to one estimate, “The total megatonnage available was about 5,000 by 1955, 14,000 by 1956, and about 20,000 by 1960.”[3] 

The Contradiction

Did Eisenhower build these weapons in order to use them?  He certainly protested, frequently and vehemently, that a nuclear war must never be fought. There is no reason to doubt that he was genuinely distressed by the mounting projections of death and destruction, which reinforced his determination to avoid war.  He lamented to Swede Hazlett:  “The Almighty must have in mind some better fate for this poor old world of ours than to see it largely blown up in a holocaust of nuclear bombs.”  When the Soviets suppressed the Hungarian rebellion in 1956, he acted on his words.  C.D. Jackson urged some slight pressure against the Soviets; Eisenhower responded that annihilating Hungary was no way to help it:  “After the event all of [the victims of a nuclear war], regardless of nationality, will be disinterested in the petty arguments as to who was responsible. … That War (would be) so terrible that the human mind cannot comprehend it.” However his growing fear of nuclear destruction marked only a quantitative change.  Since long before becoming president, he had insisted on the folly of another world war, especially if fought with nuclear weapons.[4]

Perhaps, then, he built up the nuclear arsenal to pursue a calculated strategy of deterrence.  Proponents of this view would argue that he knew very well that it was impossible to fight a war with nuclear weapons.[5]  Nuclear weapons were the surest deterrent to war precisely because they were unusable.  So the U.S. was guaranteeing peace and doing the world a favor by building and deploying a massive nuclear arsenal.  This interpretation may seem persuasive today, because so many people have been talking and thinking in this way for so many years.  Eisenhower’s own popularity and his prestige as a war hero first gave public legitimacy to this pattern of discourse.  However, this discursive path was not obvious to Eisenhower or his advisors.  It was a product, not a premise, of their nuclear discourse.  It would not seriously influence actual U.S. policy until after they left the White House.  Their own policymaking took a very different path, as the following pages will show.

“I want to keep the United States in a position whereby we do not have to be frightened when we wake up mornings about whether an atomic bomb has been dropped,” Eisenhower told Senator Styles Bridges.  The question was how to maintain that sense of security.  In U.S. public discourse, there was a growing view that the way to do it was to insure a nuclear stalemate, so that each side would to deter the other from using nuclear weapons.  The president did gradually pay more attention to deterrence in his private language.  By early 1956, he was arguing that, if war would be deterred by massed force, then the more force, the more safety.[6]

In general, though, Eisenhower did not count on nuclear parity to ensure mutual deterrence.  Insofar as deterrence theory influenced policies, the crucial premise was that weapons deter only when they pose a credible threat.  As General Nathan Twining told the president:  “A deterrent would cease to be a deterrent if the enemy came to believe that we had lost our will to use it.” [7]  Eisenhower clearly agreed.  From 1956 through 1960 (the years when, so many historians believe, he was changing his views), he continued speaking of nuclear weapons as perfectly usable weapons, weapons that he intended to use to win, if war came.

Why did a president who warned so often of the nuclear danger build and plan to use so many nuclear weapons?  Eisenhower himself was always quick to blame “the other fellow” for creating his difficulties; the “faithless” Soviets were the “insuperable obstacle” to disarmament, he wrote in his diary.[8]  The president could never know if this was true because he would never take the risk of finding out (as the next chapter will show).  Eisenhower could also have blamed domestic political pressures for his inconsistencies.  Caught between strong pro-nuclear constituencies and growing pressures for disarmament, he might have been trying to please both constituencies.  However, this interpretation falters for lack of evidence.  Even in his most private recorded moments with Dulles and other confidantes, Eisenhower rarely introduced domestic political concerns into conversations about nuclear weapons. 

Perhaps the unprecedented nature of the problem made it too difficult to think clearly and consistently.  Some of the president's closest advisors saw it that way.  Andrew Goodpaster later said that the major problem was not politics, but the sheer novelty of the weapons:  “Eisenhower was being intuitive, not intellectual.”  C.D. Jackson offered a harsher judgment.  While the president could often see “individual pieces of the international jigsaw puzzle,” Jackson wrote in his diary, “he does not seem to be able to see what the picture would look like when all the pieces were put together.  This impression amply confirmed by inside White House family when hair down.”  There is certainly evidence that can support this view. Yet Eisenhower often tried, at least, to think somewhat systematically about nuclear weapons and their global implications.  A man who prized clarity and consistency so much was unlikely to be self-contradictory all the time on such a crucial issue.[9]  

Although all of these interpretations have some validity, none is wholly convincing.  Eisenhower was improvising specific words and policies, dealing with specific domestic and foreign policy challenges.  But he was always working within a single discursive framework.  The logical consistency in his nuclear policies emerges when his discourse and policy are interpreted in light of each other and in light of their unifying thread, his pursuit of apocalypse management.  That same discursive framework explains why Eisenhower could never put the pieces of the puzzle together and why he continued to try.  It was that endless attempt, doomed to fail, that made his problems insoluble.

“He Would Rather Be Atomized Than Communized”

Early in 1956, Eisenhower told his old friend William Robinson:  “It is certainly conceivable that conditions could arise under a Republican Administration when there would be no alternative to a declaration of war.”  Life magazine had just published Dulles’ boast that the administration had gone to the brink of nuclear war:  "The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art."  Eisenhower told his aides that he agreed:  “If you are imposing a moral program in this world, you have to stand behind it with strength …  It would be unthinkable to be guilty of a Munich.  It is likely that you do come to a place uncomfortably close to war, but you cannot retreat and retreat.”  He saw no middle ground between imposing the U.S. moral program and suffering a process of endless retreat; his apocalyptic worldview required apocalyptic risk.  So he wanted further nuclear testing to find out how to “make it more of a military weapon and less one just of mass destruction.”  These were no longer “new weapons,” but rather “integral parts of modern armed forces.”[10]

Despite his constant warnings of the horrors of war in the nuclear age, Eisenhower left no doubt that he would be willing to fight a global war.  A report urging the importance of “the spiritual values of Western civilization” argued that a spiritual revival would foster a wider willingness to wage all-out war.  Eisenhower endorsed this view:  “General war is unthinkable, yet you rightly say that we must be ready to make an exception to this when our priceless values are directly threatened.”  He explained his views when he discussed spiritual values with the Queen of Greece:  “To accept the Communist doctrine and try to live with it” would be “too big a price to be alive.  He said he would not want to live, nor would he want his children or grandchildren to live, in a world where we were slaves of a Moscow Power.”  If World War III erupted during his term in office, he told Congressional leaders, “he might be the last person alive, but there wouldn’t be any surrender.”  In a private conference with the British ambassador, he summed up his basic premise most concisely:  “The President said that speaking for himself he would rather be atomized than communized.”[11]

This was the same logic Eisenhower commonly used in thinking about nuclear war.  After a nuclear war, the U.S. would lose free government for “two decades at the minimum,” he told Styles Bridges.  Yet the “free world” could eventually create a new society based on individual political and economic rights.  Out of a communist state, on the other hand, no rights and freedoms could ever arise.  Weighing the possibility of freedom against the certainty of slavery, he would rather fight and lose a nuclear war than not fight at all.  Although there might be no winners in a thermonuclear war, the President told the JCS, “we don’t want to lose any worse than we have to.”[12]

However, the president had no intention of losing a war.  He consistently approved policy documents like NSC 5810/1, which made it official policy to treat nuclear weapons “as conventional weapons; and to use them whenever required to achieve national objectives. … The United States must make clear its determination to prevail if general war occurs.”  His wartime colleague, Montgomery, urged NATO to plan to defeat the Soviet Union in a three-year war, relying on superior technology and nuclear-armed troops.  The president endorsed this view because the side suffering less damage would be back in action earlier and therefore win the war.[13]

Nor did he keep his view secret.  Victory was possible, he said in a major address, though “even an America victorious in atomic war could scarcely escape disastrous destruction of her cities and a fearful loss of life.  Victory itself could be agony.”  “To prevent war—or, in the tragedy of war, to win it—is the whole purpose of this huge defense establishment,” he said quite openly.[14]  

As the estimates of casualties rose steadily, Eisenhower revised his image of nuclear war.  By early 1957, he told the NSC that there could be no conventional battles:  “The only sensible thing for us to do was to put all our resources into our SAC capability and into hydrogen bombs.…[to] concentrate on what measures we should undertake in the first week of war.  It would all be over by that time.”[15]  He stated “very clearly his opinion that we had now reached a point in time when our main reliance, though not our sole reliance, should be on nuclear weapons.”  He rejected the Gaither Committee’s recommendation for a huge fallout shelter project, opting instead to rely on the U.S. advantage in strategic forces.  “With regard to the ICBM,” he told the committee members, “the free world holds the periphery and can pose a threat from a multitude of points.  Maximum massive retaliation remains the crux of our defense.  He was inclined to think that what we put into defense measures should be put into the security of our striking forces.”[16]

In the spring of 1958, Robert Cutler told the president of a war exercise that had determined how many nuclear kilotons would be needed to see “the U.S. going on to win” in two scenarios:  attacking military targets and attacking civilian targets.  The latter required a much smaller level of attack.  That was when Eisenhower approved “a targeting plan which would seek immediately to paralyze the Russian nation.”  He told the NSC that the U.S. would use its nuclear weapons to  “economically paralyze the Russian nation … to destroy the will of the Soviet Union to fight.”[17]  Such a war could never end with a negotiated settlement, he explained, because no Soviet promises could ever be trusted.  “Once we become involved in a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, we could not stop until we had finished off the enemy.”  His entire policy, therefore, was simply to “hit the Russians as hard as possible,” “hitting the big industrial and control complexes.”  “They, the Russians, will have started the war, we will finish it.  That is all the policy the President said he had.”[18] 

Eisenhower recognized that this had always been his policy:  “We certainly did not intend to change our fundamental military policy and program which we had been pursuing for the last six years.”  In the last year of his presidency he reaffirmed the same policy.  Since any war in Europe would be an all-out nuclear war, the U.S. “must be ready to throw the book” at the enemy, to “destroy his will by destroying his cities.”  Eisenhower sometimes spoke about a very quick victory, in 24 or 30 hours.  However, “if the 30-hour war occurred, little could be done unless strategic warning were received during the six-months period…The President believed the need for mobilization planning was absolute.”[19]

Preemption And Deterrence

Eisenhower occasionally seemed to reject the possibility of launching a preemptive nuclear strike.[20]  But he was much more likely to leave that door open. 

In an early 1956 diary entry, he indicated that he wanted to have early warning of a Soviet attack and respond with a preemptive U.S. first strike.  As the Defense Department's own historians conclude, U.S. policies “strained for rapid (indeed preemptive) and massive response to an imminent attack.”  The president told his military chiefs:  “Prudence would demand that we get our striking force into the air immediately upon notice of hostile action by the Soviets.  Massive retaliation, although the term has been scoffed at, is likely to be the key to survival.…He was very sure that as long as he is President he would meet an attack in the way indicated.”[21]  When his trusted aide Andrew Goodpaster said, “We must not allow the enemy to strike the first blow,” the president did not disagree.  “SAC must not allow the enemy to strike the first blow,” he asserted late in 1957.  He once mused to his Secretary of State that, were he a dictator, he would “launch an attack on Russia.”[22]

Eisenhower's affirmed his commitment to preemption even more often toward the end of his second term.  “We should get off our striking power as quickly as possible.”  “You try to shoot your enemy before he shoots you.”  “We might get information about impending Russian attack which would cause us to fire our missiles.” “Ultimately some President might have to decide that it was his duty to strike the first blow against the USSR.”  “The initial strike must be worked out in detail to make sure that all blows were struck simultaneously.”[23]

This became official, albeit implicit, policy in NSC 5904/1, “U.S. Policy in the Event of War,” which assumed the possibility of a preemptive response to an impending Soviet attack.  When Eisenhower authorized some field commanders to use nuclear weapons without his prior approval, he implied a warfighting orientation and made pre-emptive attack more possible and more likely. In mid-1958 he said that he did not even know the precise rules governing pre-authorization to use nuclear weapons.[24]

Later in his second term he began again talking about a war that went beyond the initial nuclear exchange.  He wanted the military to prepare for various wartime contingencies.  NSC 5904/1 turned into official policy his insistence that the U.S. must have “residual power and capacity for quick recovery.”  When he ordered a study of “the kind of war the U.S. would face” after the first exchange, he added:  “One would have to assume that both countries would be almost stabilized from the military point of view after the nuclear exchange.  In order to insure “an effective restrike capability,” he wanted every nuclear-armed Polaris submarines to reload after firing all its missiles.   “The President believed the restrike capability was not a deterrent.  Nevertheless he thought it would be very desirable.”  In his last year in the White House his primary concern remained, not deterrence, but victory.[25] 

In the latter part of his second term, Eisenhower did focus more on the concept of deterrence.  But he made it clear that, for him, deterrence was synonymous with a firm determination to win a nuclear war by destroying Soviet cities:  “The central question is whether or not we have the ability to destroy anyone who attacks us, because the biggest thing today is to provide a deterrent to war. .… If we are going to fight a nuclear war, it was clear in his mind that we would attack cities and governmental concentrations.  Invariably, the reasoning leads us back to perfecting the deterrent.”  When he heard an early 1960 briefing on the weaponry needed to insure deterrence by guaranteeing the “U.S. prevailing in a general war,” he raised no objection to the premise that equated deterrence with assured victory.  Later that year, “turning again to deterrence, the President said he would want the enemy to realize that enemy cities can be destroyed by our retaliatory forces.  He believed we should think more in terms of cities and deterrence than we had in the past.”[26]

This was no theory of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).  Early in 1959, Eisenhower already believed that in “a few years” the Soviets might have "enough missiles so as not to have grounds to fear retaliation.”  Yet his concept of deterrence continued to depend on the premise that the U.S. could win a victory.  Because the U.S. retained escalation dominance over the Soviets, it would strike first, and it would recover more quickly than the enemy from the chaos of war.[27]

This turned out to be a quixotic quest, for the Soviets were determined to keep up in the arms race.  Although they never succeeded during the Eisenhower years (which made U.S. plans for “prevailing” seem plausible), they never stopped trying.  Eisenhower did not recognize the irony in this.  But his speechwriter Emmet Hughes did, when he wrote:  “The second term of Eisenhower would echo with those sounds from the first term that had been, from the beginning, most discordant and most disconcerting.”  His first example of “discordant sound” was the irony underlying the administration's military policy:  the New Look itself, by spurring the Soviets to build a countervailing nuclear arsenal, helped to create and perpetuate the very threat it was designed to meet.  Inflated estimates of Soviet capability, and a response based on worst-case scenarios, only heightened the sense of insecurity.  As long as the president held to the premises of apocalypse management, there was no way out of this paradox.[28]

 “Digging Ourselves Out Of Ashes”

Pre-emption and escalation dominance offered a significant military advantage only as long as there was some prospect of meaningful victory.  The president knew that the U.S. would suffer “practically total economic collapse, which could not be restored to any kind of operative conditions under six months to a year.…It would literally be a business of digging ourselves out of ashes, starting again.”  Nevertheless, he told the NSC, “the U.S. would have to pick itself up from the floor and try to win through to a successful end.”[29]  

Although he realized that a nuclear attack would leave government officials (including himself) and everyone else “completely bewildered … absolutely nuts,” he insisted to his Cabinet:  “We are simply going to have to be prepared to operate with people who are ‘nuts.’…[to] preserve some common sense in a situation in which everybody is going crazy.”  He wanted emotion management programs to make the will of the people “practically unconquerable.”  Still, by 1956 he had begun “to wonder just how much of such a war the run of people would be willing and able to take.”  To answer that question, he charged civil defense chief Val Peterson to head up a study on The Human Effects of Nuclear Weapons.[30] 

Peterson, who was already directing the administration's efforts at emotion management, recommended more of the same.  His study predicted that roughly 30% of the U.S. population would die.  After reading it, Eisenhower concluded that “if the United States became involved in a nuclear war, North America would in effect become a desert.”  Nevertheless, Peterson’s panel concluded that this level of destruction would be manageable in principle.  The real problem was that the public would be “psychologically overwhelmed.”   The solution was to teach Americans to be “resolute survivors…a concerted national effort at patriotic renewal and spiritual advance…to nerve ourselves to make the very best of the very worst.…[to] raise hope for a new dynamics of the human race.”  Like Operation Candor, this education program would also create, in the pre-war present, “greater public acceptance of proposals to increase our defensive strength,” to give the administration “more freedom for maneuver in the development and implementation of foreign policy.”  The president told the panel “that this was just the kind of thing he had been looking for.…The problem is how you get people to face such a possibility without getting hysterical.”[31]

 Eisenhower told the NSC that  the main import of the Peterson’s findings was the “very definite effect on our war plans.… The only sensible thing for us to do was to put all our resources into our SAC capability and into hydrogen bombs.…[to] concentrate on what measures we should undertake in the first week of war.  It would all be over by that time.”  He emphasized the importance of the report’s call for effective civil defense measures, especially evacuation of cities, so that nuclear war would be survivable and winnable.[32]   

The Peterson panel suggested bomb shelters as a symbolic way to make ordinary citizens feel “involved.”  When the NSC was briefed on the plan, though, the president’s only question was far from symbolic:  How would air coming into shelters be screened to eliminate radioactive particles?  A few months later, he told his Cabinet that he wanted to “get private industry active on many of the little ‘practical’ problems as perhaps designing a small air purifier for use by individuals.”  By 1957, Eisenhower was putting more faith in evacuation of cities than in shelters.  “If it were practiced sufficiently,” he told the Cabinet, “the populace would become conditioned to orderly evacuation.”  “He was searching desperately,” he told the NSC, “to find the best thing for us to do at the present time in order to minimize the terrible results of a nuclear attack on the United States.”[33]

By 1958, he began to realize that the rising estimates of wartime death and destruction made plans for postwar recovery seem increasingly unrealistic.  Occasionally, he would admit that “if we ever get to the place where these missiles will rain down out of the skies on the United States, much of what we are planning will be useless anyhow.”  Rather than abandon the planning process, however, he ordered that the estimates be changed.  He wanted “a basis for further planning which is in the range of something reasonable… manageable or useable.”

The President observed that he had asserted many times that if we assumed too much damage there would be little point in planning, since everything would be in ashes.  An earlier presentation had estimated that some areas would not be useable for 30 years after an attack; of course planning on this basis is impossible.  While we don’t get off scot free in case of an attack, we should make assumptions which describe a realm in which humans can operate.

Eisenhower officially directed NSC to keep “assumptions as to the extent of damage within limits which provide a basis for feasible planning.”[34]

In 1959, as estimates of wartime destruction continued to grow, Eisenhower approved NSC 5904/1, the official U.S. policy for global war, which made the nation’s first objective “to prevail, and survive as a nation capable of controlling its own destiny” by planning for a “quick recovery.”  In his final year in office he still promoted evacuation plans and called for “a much larger program for the protection of the population,” expressing satisfaction that “our thinking had now progressed to a point that he had been stressing for a long time, namely, how can we recover from a massive nuclear attack.”[35]

At times the planning got very specific.  At one of its very last meetings, Eisenhower’s NSC debated whether civilian airliners should be commandeered for military use during World War III.  The president was against it, because a nuclear war would stop all railroad traffic, “so that we might be dependent for months on the civil airlines…Industry might have to use planes for necessary communication and rehabilitation.”  In sum, when Eisenhower told Khrushchev that “war has become nothing more than a struggle for survival,” he did not mean that war was unwinnable.  He meant that surviving had become the definition of winning.[36]

Eisenhower could speak confidently about living—and winning—with nuclear weapons because he brought unrealistic assumptions into his planning, not only for recovery but also for warfighting.  In February, 1956, he ordered the JCS that “targeting should avoid unnecessarily high population losses.”  In 1959, he still “assumed that the targets we attacked would always be selected and not indiscriminate.”  The president explained that he was hoping to give the U.S. a postwar advantage.  He wanted to “avoid non-military destruction and casualties” in the Soviet satellites so that the surviving civilian population would rise up and form governments “founded upon broad-based, popular support” and friendly to U.S. interests.[37] 

The president also convinced himself, for a while at least, that he could use nuclear weapons without risking radioactive fallout.  “The H-bomb in proportion to its size is probably one of the cleanest [weapons],” he told a press conference.  “The whole policy of the United States is to have cleaner ones, ones that will not be so horrible in their capacity for mass destruction.”  He hoped that the U.S. would soon have totally “clean” weapons with no fallout.[38]

Eisenhower never had a clear grasp of the power of the weapons he was building up.  At the very end of his presidency, he could still confess that “no one knows in what condition a nuclear attack will leave the country.”  Had he really been concerned about their effects, he would have know that his utterances about “clean” bombs, limited damage, and large surviving populations were virtually meaningless.  He sometimes acknowledged that the magnitude of destruction, both at home and abroad, made planning impossible.  But he felt obliged to make plans for victory, so he simply ignored what he knew to be true.  And his ignorance was, in part at least, by choice.  As early as 1957 he told AEC Chairman Strauss “that there are some things he will not allow anyone to tell him.”[39]

Living in such an unreal world and filled as always with alarm, the president could approach the brink with his nuclear fists at the ready, as he did in the 1959 crisis over Berlin.  Eisenhower relied on a kind of domino theory:  If the Soviets moved on West Berlin and the U.S. failed to use nuclear weapons, “we would first lose the city itself, and shortly after, all of Western Europe. … The United States would indeed be reduced to the character of a garrison state if it was to survive at all.”  “All our rights can be gradually lost.”  The U.S. must be “willing to ‘push its whole stack of chips into the pot’ when such becomes necessary,” he told Congressional leaders.  The prospect of nuclear war “should not throw us off balance and render us hysterical,” he added.  “We are going to live with this type of crisis for years.”[40]

Limited Nuclear War

This type of crisis was inevitable, in part, because Eisenhower was determined to resort to nuclear weapons no only in direct conflict with the Soviets, but also in “limited” or “peripheral” wars.  “We must now plan to fight peripheral wars on the same basis as we would fight a general war,” using all available weapons, he cautioned the NSC.  NSC 5810/1 made it official policy to use nuclear weapons to “deter limited aggression” as well as a full-scale Soviet attack.  This strategy grew in part from fear of excessive military spending.  Eisenhower told the NSC that the U.S. should be prepared to use nuclear weapons in South Vietnam and elsewhere in East Asia, because “we could not support a much larger deployment of forces in the Far East without heavily increasing our costs.”  It was cheaper to depend on U.S. nuclear weapons.[41]   

“If we have to fight,” he told the NSC, “we will fight in Moscow in order not to have to fight in Washington.”  “We would certainly have to take the consequences.  He was strongly opposed to abandoning our objectives under Soviet pressure.¼He was afraid of a war in which we would be sticking our toe in the water and if we found the water cold would pull it out again.”  So he announced publicly that he would use SAC’s strategic nuclear forces in some “future small war.”  At the end of his presidency, when he was most aware of the destructive power of nuclear weapons, he still insisted “that the only practical move would be to start using them from the beginning without any distinction whatever between them and conventional weapons.”[42]

This was not empty rhetoric, as the policymaking process revealed.  Early in 1956, the president informed the NSC that the U.S. would use nuclear weapons against Chinese bases to defend South Vietnam.  Later that year, when the Soviets signaled an intention to get involved in the Suez crisis, he warned his advisors, “We would of course be in a major war.”  “If those fellows start something, we may have to hit ‘em—and, if necessary, with everything in the bucket.”  When he asked Congress for blanket authority to use U.S. forces in a future Middle East crisis (the “Eisenhower doctrine”), he warned of a domino effect:  Communist domination of the Middle East would make Western Europe as endangered as if there were no NATO; it would put Asia and Africa, and human freedom itself, “in jeopardy.”  Would he use nuclear weapons to forestall such an outcome, a reporter asked?  “We do regard these smaller weapons as an almost routine part of our equipment nowadays,” the president replied, “and you would almost have to use them.”[43]

When the Chinese started shelling offshore islands again in 1958, his response was much the same as it had been in 1955.  He told the British Foreign Secretary that “if Formosa were lost, then a hole would result in the very middle of the island chain of defense.  Should the Reds eventually control Formosa, that, in the President's opinion, would be a real Munich.¼If nuclear weapons were going to be used, it would have to be an all-out effort rather than a local effort.”  He left no doubt that, if he thought Formosa would fall, he would start a nuclear war, even though he knew it would destroy China and very possibly trigger World War III.[44]  Bundy notes that “readiness to use nuclear weapons was prominent in the secret analysis on which Eisenhower and Dulles agreed at Newport in 1958.”  However this was never made public because “discussion of the use of the bomb was highly disquieting to Eisenhower's own public.”[45]

The president understood that his strategy turned every small war into a potential trigger for a global war.  In some situations, as he acknowledged, it would be foolhardy to cross the nuclear threshold.  Yet he recognized that “the more the services depend on nuclear weapons the dimmer the President's hope gets to contain any limited war or to keep it from spreading into general war.  This is the problem, the President said, which always nags him.”[46]  However his own discursive paradigm, combined with his fear of an excessive military budget, forced him to accept this risk.  Indeed, that combination made the whole nuclear dilemma insoluble. He could not afford to use the weapons, because that might well trigger general war, but he could not afford to rule out their use.  Apocalypse management made it vital to win every conflict at an affordable cost. Using the bomb  could easily seem to be the only way to win. 

The most powerful argument against the New Look was that, as Soviet retaliatory power grew, the threat of massive retaliation lost its credibility.  But Eisenhower seems to have held just the opposite view.  His aide Robert Cutler explained his reasoning most clearly.  If the U.S. announced that it would use nuclear weapons only when its own territory was attacked, “the U.S. will have lost the element of uncertainty as to retaliation against attack other than on the homeland, which is the core of ‘deterrent value.’”  Moreover, U.S. allies would doubt America’s will to use massive retaliation to protect them:  “Alliances will crumble and the enemy will be emboldened to take greater risks in subversion, economic penetration, even in minor military aggression.”[47] 

However, repeated U.S. threats of massive retaliation also put alliances in jeopardy, since allies were increasingly afraid of the danger that nuclear war posed to their own homelands.  As Gaddis points out, the serious brush with war in the Taiwan Straits “thoroughly discredited” the New Look in the eyes of the allies “by revealing how little it would take to push the administration into a war with China involving the probable use of nuclear weapons.”  Eisenhower was always aware of this risk.  As he reminded the NSC, “this business of arguing that you are going to defend these countries through recourse to nuclear weapons isn’t very convincing.  In point of fact, these countries do not wish to be defended by nuclear weapons. … Our allies are absolutely scared to death that we will use such weapons.”[48]

He admitted to British Prime Minister Macmillan that the New Look “had been considerably affected … by political considerations around the world.”  Yet when he acknowledged to the NSC the “serious political problems in view of the current state of world opinion as to the use of such weapons.…he did not say that world opinion was right.”  Rather, he implied that the U.S. would eventually persuade the world to accept the routine use of nuclear weapons even in smaller wars. “The President said that people are wrong [to fear nuclear weapons], and that perhaps the opinion must be changed.”  When that opinion changed very little, Eisenhower remained caught between having to affirm and retreat from plans to use nuclear weapons in limited wars.  To the end of his presidency, Eisenhower clung to the basic principles of the New Look, all the while lamenting “the dilemma of how we make ourselves secure in our alliance without destroying the alliance.”[49] 

The president and his aides spent long contentious hours searching for clearly articulated principles to determine when and how nuclear weapons would be used.  But the problem turned out to be insoluble.  Principles that might satisfy one faction in the administration were always unacceptable to some other faction.[50]  More fundamentally, the administration was ensnared in the New Look’s central contradictions.  In order to keep its policy credible, the U.S. had to make nuclear threats in many cases where those threats were scarcely credible.  In order not to weaken his credible deterrent, Eisenhower had to weaken it.  And the same weapons that supposedly held his alliance together also threatened to tear it apart.  So he remained caught between having to affirm and retreat from plans to use nuclear weapons in limited wars.

His solution was to refuse to choose one option or the other.  Therefore he could never articulate any guiding principles to translate the New Look into specific policy directives.  Though some historians praise this ambiguity as clever strategy, it left administration officials and military leaders just as confused as any enemy might be.[51]  Yet the president never wavered from reliance on nuclear weapons as the primary means for fighting and winning war.  So he embedded himself ever deeper in his insoluble dilemmas.  His pursuit of disarmament, arms control, and a test ban, meant to resolve those dilemmas, would only make them more insoluble.

Notes to Chapter 12

[1] See, e.g., Dockrill, Eisenhower's New-Look, 192:  “Nothing that happened during his second term shook his confidence in the New Look strategy”; Bundy, Danger and Survival, 325:  “The president was aware of the profoundly excessive character of the strategic forces he had approved and aware also of the possibly catastrophic consequences of their use, but he did not act on his awareness.”

[2] NSC, 1/26/56, FRUS 1955-1957, 20: 297; Memorandum of Conference, 2/12/59, AWF, DDE Diaries Series, Box 39, “Staff Notes February 1959 (2)”; Memorandum of conference with the president, 11/4/57, DDE Diaries Series, Box 28, “November 1957 Staff Notes”; Memorandum of Conference 3/4/59, AWF, DDE Diaries Series, Box  39, “Staff Notes March 1-15, 1959 (2).”  See also Memorandum of Conference, 2/9/59, AWF, DDE Diaries Series, Box 39, “Staff Notes February 1959 (2)”; Eisenhower’s comment to Herter quoted in Ambrose, Eisenhower, 523; NSC, 4/28/60, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 403.

[3] Bundy, Danger and Survival, 320.

[4] Eisenhower to Hazlett, 11/18/57, quoted in Ambrose, Eisenhower, 435; Eisenhower to Jackson, 11/19/56, PDDE 17: 2400.  On his response to the Hungarian revolt, see Kitts and Glad, “President Personality and Improvisational Decision Making.

[5] See, as one example among many, the influential study by Mandelbaum, The Nuclear Question.  Mandelbaum (48) argues that because the hydrogen bomb was such a "giant club" it could be used only to make threats, not to fight wars, making a deterrence strategy inevitable. 

[6] Memorandum of Conference with Styles Bridge, 5/21/57, AWF, DDE Diaries Series, Box 24, “May ’57 Miscellaneous (2)”; Memorandum, 1/23/56, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 189-191.

[7] NSC, 5/2/58, cited in Wenger, Living With Peril, 202.  See also Wampler, “Eisenhower, NATO, and Nuclear Weapons,” 175; Erdmann, “War No Longer Has Any Logic Whatever,” 107-108.

[8] Diary, 2/8/56, PDDE, 16: 2010.

[9] Newhouse, War and Peace in the Nuclear Age, 92; C. D. Jackson Log, 8/12/58, quoted in Brands, Cold Warriors, 194.  See Brands, “Age of Vulnerability,” 986; Immerman, "Confessions of an Eisenhower Revisionist,” 325.

[10]  Eisenhower to William Robinson, 3/22/56, PDDE 16: 2088; Shepley, "How Dulles Averted War," 78; Wampler, “Eisenhower, NATO, and Nuclear Weapons,” 175   175; pre-press conference briefing, 1/19/56, AWF, Press Conference Series, Box 4, “Press Conference, 1/19/56”; Press Conference, 4/25/56, quoted in Ambrose, Eisenhower, 343; Memorandum of Conference, 5/24/56, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 312.  See also Address at Jacksonville, 10/29/56, PPP 1956, 1053; Craig, Destroying the Village, 57, 62.

[11] Eisenhower to Frank Altschul, 10/25/57, AWF, DDE Diaries Series, Box 27, “DDE Diary October 1957”; conversation with Queen Frederika, 12/9/58, AWF, DDE Diaries Series, Box 38, “Staff Notes - Dec. 1958 (1)”; Legislative Leadership Meeting, 8/12/58, AWF, DDE Diaries Series, Box 35, “Aug 1958 Staff Notes (2)”; Memorandum of Conference, 6/16/59, AWF, DDE Diaries Series, Box 41, “Staff Notes June 16-30 (2).”

[12] Memorandum of conversation, 5/21/57, AWF, Ann Whitman Diary Series, Box 9, “May 1957 Diary - acw”; Rosenberg, “Origins of Overkill,” 152.

[13] NSC 5810/1, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 101, 102, 104; Eisenhower to Montgomery, 5/2/56, PDDE, 17: 2153-2154.  When Eisenhower suggested that Montgomery had understated the resulting damage, the latter responded that he had done so intentionally at the request of NATO military commander Alfred Gruenther, who “thought it would upset the Germans and other continental nations!!”:  PDDE, 17: 2155, n. 4. 

[14] Radio and TV address on the Mutual Security, 5/21/57, PPP, 1957, 386; Address to National Conference on International Trade Policy, 3/27/58, PPP, 1958, 251.

[15] NSC, 2/7/57, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 416, 414.  See also Memorandum of Conference, 1/23/56, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 189:  “He said the thought kept occurring to him that…it would be a long time before a country so struck would be shipping out any troops to fight any other kind of war.”  

[16] NSC, 4/11/57, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 473; Memorandum of Conference with the President, 11/4/57, DDE Diaries Series, Box 28, “November 1957 Staff Notes.”  According to Rosenberg, “Eisenhower accepted the conclusion that the United States could, if it chose, deliver a decisive war-winning blow against Soviet cities”: “Origins of Overkill,” 164.  See also Memorandum of Conference, 5/24/56, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 312; Memorandum of Conference, 3/30/56, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 281; Dockrill, Eisenhower's New Look, 214; Roman, Eisenhower and the Missile Gap, 166.

[17] Roman, Eisenhower and the Missile Gap, 90; NSC, 11/20/58, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 150, 151.  Eisenhower added that victory would not require “a 100 percent pulverization of the Soviet Union [because]  there was obviously a limit¾a human limit¾to the devastation which human beings could endure.”  See also Erdmann, “War No Longer Has Any Logic Whatever,” 108. 

[18] NSC, 1/22/59, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 176, 178; Roman, Eisenhower and the Missile Gap, 166.  See also Memorandum of Conference with the President, 5/26/60, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 413, and Memorandum of Conference, 3/6/59, AWF, DDE Diaries Series, Box 39, “Staff Notes March 1-15, 1959 (2),” where Senate Armed Services Committee chair Richard Russell agreed with the president that, in a “real” emergency, he should launch an “all-out” nuclear war without consulting Congress first.  The strategy of all-out attack on cities allowed the president to order the production of “cheaper missiles … with a much lower level of reliability than we now demand”:  Dockrill, Eisenhower's New-Look, 265.

[19] Press Conference, 5/23/56, PPP, 1956, 525; NSC, 7/9/59, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 239; Memorandum of Conference, 8/16/60, AWF, DDE Diaries Series, Box 51, “Staff Notes August 1960 (2)”; NSC, 9/15/60, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 468; NSC, 11/20/58, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 151; NSC, 12/18/58, AWF, NSC Series, Box 10, “391st Meeting, December 18, 1958.”  Eisenhower assumed that, after destroying the Soviet Union, the U.S. would necessarily go on to destroy China as well:  NSC, 3/5/59, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 193, 194; see also NSC, 5/12/59, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 202.  Attacking cities was central to the Single Integrated Operating Plan (SIOP) for targeting, adopted in 1960, according to Bundy, Danger and Survival, 322.

[20] See, e.g., NSC, 1/7/60, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 357; Memorandum of Conference with the President, 5/26/60, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 413.

[21] Diary, 1/23/56, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 188; Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace, 160-165, 172, citing Ernest May, et al., History of the Strategic Arms Competition, 1945-1972, pt. 1 (Office of the Secretary of Defense, Historical Office, 1981), 588; Memorandum of Conference, 5/24/56, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 312; Beschloss, Mayday, 339.  See also Memorandum of Conference, 3/30/56, FRUS 1955-1957 19:  281. 

[22] Appointments, 11/9/57, AWF, Ann Whitman Diary Series, Box 9, “November ’57 A.C.W. Diary (2)”; Ann Whitman diary, 11/5/57, quoted in Perret, Eisenhower, 450, 465.  Perret (457) concludes that Eisenhower's national security strategy was “based first and foremost on developing a preemptive strike capability.”  See the discussions of preemption in Rosenberg, “Origins of Overkill,” 171; Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace, 170-171; Snead, The Gaither Committee, 85, 225 n.66, and Erdmann, “War No Longer Has Any Logic Whatever,” 108, 116, 118, and 330 n.148.  Erdmann (336) concludes that the SIOP “embodied basic contradictions between the demands of a pre-emptive strategy and those of a retaliatory one.”

[23] Memorandum of Conference with the President, 3/4/59, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 186; NSC, 3/5/59, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 197; NSC, 1/7/60, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 359; NSC, 10/6/60, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 484; Goodpaster memorandum, 8/11/60, PDDE 21: 2100, n.1.  See also the reference to Twining’s briefing of Eisenhower in Herken, Counsels of War, 127. 

[24] Brendon, Ike, 363.

[25] NSC, 3/5/59, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 196; NSC 5904/1, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 208; NSC, 7/23/59, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 275; NSC, 4/28/60, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 401.  See also Roman, Eisenhower and the Missile Gap, 104.

[26] Memorandum of Conference, 11/21/59, AWF, DDE Diaries Series, Box 45, “Staff Notes Nov. 1959 (2)”; Roman, Eisenhower and the Missile Gap, 100; NSC, 9/15/60, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 469.

[27] Memorandum of Conference, 1/12/59, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 173; Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace, 181.

[28] Hughes, Ordeal of Power, 255.  Garthoff concludes that Eisenhower and his advisors always “greatly overstated to themselves the real Soviet threat”:  Assessing the Adversary, 48.  See also Roman, Eisenhower and the Missile Gap, 52-60.

[29] Diary, 1/23/56, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 188; NSC, 1/12/56, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 179, where Eisenhower predicted that the war might last four years and proposed stockpiling five years worth of war material.

[30] Oakes, The Imaginary War, 150, 151; diary, 1/11/56, PDDE, 16: 1952; NSC, 1/12/56, AWF, NSC Series, Box 7, “272nd meeting of the NSC, January 12, 1956.

[31] Report by the Panel on the Human Effects of Nuclear Weapons Development, Summary, 11/21/56, AWF, Administration Series, Box 4, “Atomic Energy Commission, 1955-56 (1),” 17, 21; NSC, 2/7/57, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 415; Memorandum, 11/21/56, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 372.

[32] NSC, 2/7/57, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 414, 417.

[33] NSC, 12/20/56, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 382-383; Eisenhower to Cabinet, 7/19/57, AWF, DDE Diaries Series, Box 25 “July 1957 Miscellaneous”; Eisenhower to Cabinet, 7/12/57, AWF, DDE Diaries Series, Box 25, “July 1957 Miscellaneous”; NSC, 2/7/57, FRUS 19: 4171955-1957, 19: 417.  The president told the NSC that if an atomic bomb were dropped on Kansas City “indignation would be furious and bitter because the Government had not adequately protected the civilian population”:  NSC, 3/28/57, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 453.

[34] Memorandum of Conference with the President, 3/4/59, FRUS 1958-1960, 3:186; Memorandum, 3/3/58, AWF, DDE Diaries Series, Box 31 “Staff Notes March 1958 (2)”;  NSC, 12/18/58, AWF, NSC Series, Box 10, “391st Meeting, December 18, 1958.”  See also NSC, 1/22/59, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 177. 

[35] NSC 5904/1, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 208; NSC, 4/28/60, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 399, 400.  Near the end of his second term, Eisenhower was still using the attack on Pearl Harbor as a relevant analogy in preparations for nuclear war:  NSC, 9/15/60, FRUS 1958-1960, 3:468, 469.  Although he discouraged stockpiling of material for traditional war-fighting, he continued to demand stockpiling of medical supplies; see Erdman, “War No Longer Has Any Logic Whatever,” 115-116.

[36] NSC, 12/21/60, NSC Series, Box 12, “433rd Meeting, December 21, 1960”; Beschloss, Mayday, 210. 

[37] Rosenberg, “Origins of Overkill,” 155; NSC, 5/12/59, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 203, 207, 209.  See also NSC, 3/5/59, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 195.

[38] Press Conference, 6/5/57, PPP, 1957, 443; Press Conference, 6/26/57, PPP, 1957, 499; Press Conference, 4/30/58, PPP 1958, 353; Eisenhower to Dulles, 6/25/57, quoted in Ambrose, Eisenhower, 399.  Ambrose notes that Eisenhower cited Edward Teller as his authority for the claim of clean bombs coming “in four to five years … which Teller had not said.”  See also pre-press conference briefing, 7/17/57, AWF, DDE Diaries Series, Box 25, “DDE Diary7/1/57 – 8/31/57”; Memorandum of Conference, 4/17/58, AWF, DDE Diaries Series, Box 32, “Staff Notes April 1958 (2).”

[39] NSC, 12/22/60,FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 525; Memorandum of conference, 10/29/57, AWF, DDE Diaries Series, Box 27, “October 1957 Staff Notes (1).” 

[40] Craig, Destroying the Village, 78; Memorandum of Conference, 6/16/59, AWF, DDE Diaries Series, Box 41, “Staff Notes June 16-30 (2)”; Memorandum of Conference, 3/6/59, AWF, DDE Diaries Series, Box 39, “Staff Notes March 1-15, 1959 (2).”  See also Ambrose, Eisenhower, 503, and NSC, 5/1/58, FRUS 3: 89.  Erdmann cites remarks about the Berlin crisis in a press conference as convincing evidence that Eisenhower no longer thought it possible to use nuclear weapons to control crises:  “War No Longer Has Any Logic Whatever,” 110-117.  However, Campbell Craig finds the same remarks “entirely nonsensical,” signaling only a desire to avoid making a meaningful statement that would constitute a commitment of any kind:  Destroying the Village, 99.  The text is in PPP, 1959, 252.

[41] NSC, 2/27/56, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 204; NSC 5810/1, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 101-104; NSC, 6/26/58, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 121-122.  In the latter meeting, Eisenhower was seconding Dulles’ view that if the cost of a conventional operation might run to two or three billion dollars, then nuclear weapons should be used to keep the cost down.  In 1956, the president was already discussing detailed plans for “adapting the [Army] Division to the atomic battlefield,” where “small divisions—largely self-contained—would be needed which could weave between contaminated areas”:  Memorandum of Conference, 10/11/56, FRUS 19: 369-3701955-1957, 19: 369-370.

[42] NSC, 1/3/57, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 397; NSC, 3/5/59, FRUS 1958-1960, 3:199, 200; Press Conference, 4/17/57, PPP, 1957, 287; Kistiakowsky, A Scientist at the White House, 400.  On one occasion, Eisenhower speculated about fending off a hypothetical military attack from Yugoslavia, saying “2 bombs make the country helpless”:  Memorandum of Conversation, 5/21/57, AWF, Ann Whitman Diary Series, Box 9, “May 1957 Diary – acw.” 

[43] Wenger, Living With Peril, 128; Ambrose, Eisenhower, 368; Hughes, Ordeal of Power, 223; Special Message to Congress on the Situation in the Middle East, 1/5/57, PPP, 1957, 8, 16; Press Conference, 1/23/57, PPP, 1957, 82.  Ambrose notes that, during the Suez crisis, Eisenhower asked whether U.S. forces in the Mediterranean had atomic weapons.

[44] Memorandum of Conference, 9/21/58, AWF, DDE Diaries Series,  Box 36, “Staff Notes Sept. 1958”; NSC, 7/9/59, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 245; NSC 10/6/60, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 485, 486.  In 1958, Eisenhower also used the Munich analogy to defend “a strong position” and “a readiness to take risks to defend the values of the free world” in Lebanon:  Brendon, Ike, 358. In 1959, he indicated that he would use nuclear weapons to defend South Korea, although it probably “would cause all-out war”:  Memorandum of Conference with the President, 7/2/59, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 235.

[45] Bundy, Danger and Survival, 285.  Dulles was willing to risk nuclear war if the financial cost of conventional war in east Asia grew too high, and he assumed that nuclear weapons could be used with no resulting radioactive fallout:  NSC, 6/26/58, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 121; Lyon, Eisenhower, 834.

[46] Memorandum of Conference, 8/24/60, AWF, DDE Diaries Series, Box 51, “Staff Notes August 1960 (1).”

[47] Cutler memorandum, 3/20/58, quoted in Roman, Eisenhower and the Missile Gap, 69.  See also ibid., 77, 87; Dockrill, Eisenhower's New-Look, 260; Bose, “Winning the Peace by Threatening Nuclear War,” 947.  These explanations are much more persuasive than Campbell Craig’s very speculative argument in Destroying the Village that Eisenhower was craftily manipulating policy to make war with the Soviet Union impossible.

[48] Gaddis, Strategies of Containment, 172, 170; NSC, 5/17/56, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 307.  See also Memorandum, 1/23/56, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 191.

[49] Wenger, Living With Peril, 169; NSC, 2/27/56, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 204, 211; Memorandum of Conference with the President, 7/2/59, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 235; Memorandum of Conference, 8/16/60, AWF, DDE Diaries Series, Box 51, “Staff Notes August 1960 (2).”  For Eisenhower's desire to make the use of nuclear weapons seem “routine,” see also, e.g., NSC, 5/2/57, AWF, NSC Series, Box 8, “321st Meeting of NSC, May 2, 1957.  On some occasions, he denied that nuclear fears in allied nations were a major problem; e.g., NSC, 2/28/57, FRUS 1955-1957, 19: 428, 432.

[50] See, e.g., Memorandum of Conference with the President, 7/2/59, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 229-235; Memorandum of Conference with the President, 7/14/59, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 254; Memorandum of Conference, 8/24/60, AWF, DDE Diaries Series, Box 51, “Staff Notes August 1960 (1)”; NSC, 10/6/60, FRUS 1958-1960, 3: 484.

[51] Dockrill, Eisenhower's New-Look, 197.